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Venison dans la rue

November 20, 2011

A friend witnessed an accident and called me just after nine on Friday night. Within 15 minutes I was on the side of the road looking into the buck’s glassy eye and wondering if he was really dead. His only injury seemed to be a four-inch scrape on the top of his right hindquarter. A nudge failed to yield a muscle tremor or eyelid blink so into the vehicle he went. As I drove home, the thought returned that he might come roaring to life in the back of the Suburban and cause a second accident. My grip tightened when he shifted in the tarp on a turn. When I got home he was still dead, and I sharpened the knives.

On the first cut there was a “woosh” and an eye-watering scent escaped. It was a smell I will never forget: dark, fermented, and overpowering. Opening the abdominal cavity revealed leaves, grass, and cranberries – the contents of the rumen. I’ve slaughtered enough to know this matter should be contained in one membrane or another. I was heartened to discover that the translucent bladder was intact. We removed it without rupture, unsure of how much difference it would make given the damage encountered.  We sorted out the gutting as best we could and carefully washed the interior.

After drying the cavity we dragged the deer to a locust tree where I threw a hammer with a tied-on length of rope over a large branch. Tony hoisted the deer, his healing wrist protesting, while I hung on the free end of the rope, and we lifted it incrementally. With its head and front legs off the ground it refused to go any higher. We pulled the end of the rope together, but our combined 330-pounds did not provide an inch of lift, so we looped the rope around my trailer hitch and I drove the deer into the air. I worried that the coyotes could jump up and grab a hind leg, so I gave it an extra pull, engaged the parking brake and let it hang high in the cool air overnight.

With daytime high temperatures forecast in the 50s, I decided to skin and quarter the deer and let the meat age in the climate controlled environment of one of our extra refrigerators. I’m glad I addressed it sooner rather than later. As a stiff wind turned the deer in circles, I cut the hide around the neck and down to the chest to meet the incision we made during field dressing. A hacksaw made quick work of sawing off the back legs above the tarsal gland, where the buck sported black patches. I took the front legs off at the knee joint with a sharp knife. Then I cut the hide up the insides of the legs, just like skinning a coyote or an otter. I returned to the neck and quickly sliced the coat away from the meat.

When I had pulled the heavy hide down to the vicinity of the prized backstraps, I saw evidence of hemorrhaging, which made sense.  What made less sense were the giant holes in the carcass that I ran into as I got down into prime backstrap territory and the coating of rumen contents that wrapped around the back of the deer and covered the tops of both hind-quarters. There were chewed up holly leaves, cedar sprigs and twigs stuffed down into the rumps like a chef had gone wild. Bones were broken and the meat was split as if with a heavy cleaver. The scent of the rumen and its green contents came back for an encore.

I carefully and completely excluded meat that was even in the same county as the blasted stomach stuff. I took the two undamaged front legs for ground or stew meat, about three-quarters (14-inches) of one backstrap and a four-inch piece of the other, stew meat from the neck and also from the one lower hindquarter portion that was unaffected by the crash. I was going to make a little antler mount, as opposed to the more laborious European skull mount, but the vehicular impact broke part of the skull, loosening one antler. I rested the head in the fork of a maple tree and will address it before it gets rank. The hide is folded in a secure tub, awaiting future tanning, and the carcass went deep in the ground in a remote location.

 The accident wasted a great deal of meat from a deer I knew something about, but we salvaged what we could and look forward to some excellent eating. This blessing was timed perfectly. Just an hour before I received the call I was debating pulling our last vacuum-sealed package of venison stew meat from the freezer to augment our Thanksgiving feast of  local turkey and home-butchered chicken and ducks. More importantly, everyone we know seems to be suffering from an unseasonable onslaught of deer tick bites. With one of our household’s potential deer hunters on doxycycline for a couple of nasty tick bites and the other recovering from the same, neither of us are particularly keen on getting into a ground blind in these Cape Cod woods anytime soon. The buck I unwrapped was so infested with deer ticks I wondered how it had enough blood left to run across a road, and it served as a reminder of a whole host of tick-born maladies that are statistically rare but have afflicted a significant number of people we know. We’re holding out for a cold shotgun deer season or, if Jack Frost refuses to cooperate soon, some icy muzzle-loader hunting.  For now, our gift of a seven-point buck is received with deepest gratitude and respect. I wish the same for whatever you grace your table with this Thanksgiving.

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